- Jordan Brenner, ESPN The Magazine contributing writer
As top Giant Killer candidates continue to get swallowed up by the giant sinkhole that is conference tournament season, this list grows thinner by the day. Take Denver. The Pioneers rated as our third-best Giant Killer when we examined the model on Thursday morning. By the afternoon, they were gone, the victims of 12-win Texas State in the WAC quarterfinals.
Other teams are playing their way out of GK contention in the other direction. Saint Louis, which would have been among our top 15 GKs, is instead a 5-seed in Joe Lunardi's latest bracket. If that projection holds, they'll be a Giant in the tourney. Still, if a few teams can power through the next couple of days, the potential exists for a strong field of GKs -- especially with an epic Killer at the top of the list.
Giant Killer Rating: 83.2
Secret Sauce: 17.34
Key Metric: 17.3 steals per 100 possessions (No. 1 in the nation)
VCU continues to hover in the ether between Giant and Killer. Joe Lunardi currently projects the Rams as a 6-seed, which would place them in the former category. But if they slide to a 7, they suddenly become the perfect round of 32 threat. As we wrote yesterday, their GK rating is nothing short of otherworldly by historical standards.
We've talked in the past about how Shaka Smart innately understands GK theory in opting for high-risk, high-reward strategies that can result in a major possession advantage. But this year, he took that approach one step further, adding offensive rebounding to the mix. In the previous two seasons, the Rams ranked 230th and 132nd in offensive boards. But this year, they're all the way up to 23rd in the nation (37.9 percent). The gamble in sending extra guys to the glass is sacrificing transition defense. But offensive rebounding is a hallmark of historically successful Giant Killers, and a big reason why VCU's "secret sauce" is absurdly strong this season.
Giant Killer Rating: 58.9
Secret Sauce: 5.73
Key Metric: 44.3 offensive rebounding percentage (No. 1 in the nation)
Who can make sense out of the Gophers? Well, maybe our model. You know about their 15-1 start to the season and their 5-11 finish, including yesterday's dreadful loss to Illinois in the Big Ten tournament. Lunardi still has them in his bracket, but they've slid into GK position. And that might be just the right fit.
Minnesota has wins over Indiana, Michigan State and Wisconsin this season, so the Gophers have shown that they can challenge anyone, despite their horrendous stretch run. So allow us to consider the following theory: Maybe they've been miscast all season as a top power-conference team. Maybe they're just a prime Giant Killer. Their rating speaks to that idea. In addition to their prolific offensive rebounding, the Gophers also rank 34th in the country in steal percentage. Those categories make up the bulk of a GK's secret sauce, so Minnesota carries a strong resemblance to teams that have pulled off prior upsets. Plus, they rank 30th in the BPI. So Minnesota isn't just a good Killer. It is a good team, despite the way it finished the season.
Giant Killer Rating: 51.7
Secret Sauce: 4.79
Key Metric: 37.2 offensive rebound percentage (No. 31 in the nation)
A couple more bid-stealers could really screw this one up for us. Lunardi has the Gaels hanging on to a bid with an 11-seed, but that's tenuous -- especially since their conference tourney has ended and they have no other chance to impress the selection committee.
But Saint Mary's profile pretty much screams "slaying." The average fan will harp on Matthew Dellavedova as the type of player who can "carry" a team to an upset. But our model shows no correlation between having a star player or a senior leader and becoming a GK. Much more important is Saint Mary's' offensive rebounding and 3-point shooting (31.4 percent of attempts), which shows the Gaels' willingness to take the necessary chances to beat a more talented opponent.
Giant Killer Rating: 50.2
Secret Sauce: 11.23
Key Metric: 14.1 steal percentage (No. 6 in the nation)
The results of the GK conclave are in, and we have cast our lot in C-USA with the Golden Eagles. Having lost out on the C-USA automatic bid, Southern Miss will need an at-large bid to reach the NCAA tourney. And it sure would be nice to give its 50.2 GK rating a road test.
The Golden Eagles' double-digit secret sauce speaks to their strong resemblance to previous Killers. In addition to their quick hands on D, they also crash the offensive boards hard, grabbing 39.1 percent of available caroms (10th in the country). It's scary to think what kind of a Killer Southern Miss would make if they let it fly more often from 3-point range (just 31.8 percent of their attempts), because they knock those shots down at a 38.1 percent clip. Maybe, in the end, we'll find out that Southern Miss is just a mirage, with losses to Arizona, Louisiana Tech, Wichita State and Memphis (twice) providing evidence that the Golden Eagles can't compete against good teams. But we'd like to find that out for ourselves. And the only way to know is to let them into the field.
Jordan Brenner provides his ranking of the top 10 potential Giant Killers. VCU continues to possess the best chance to upset in the NCAA tournament.